Some people help a friend going through hard times with a Hallmark card.
Some people say it with flowers.
Rabbi Menachem Genack sends a d’var Torah – a sermonette, in old-time television parlance.
Which, as it turns out, suited the friend – President Bill Clinton – just fine.
The two met when Rabbi Genack introduced then-candidate Clinton at a fundraising event in Alpine in 1992. The rabbi, alluding to President George H. W. Bush’s self-confessed difficulties with “the vision thing,” quoted Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
Governor Clinton thanked the rabbi. He said that he would use the verse when he accepted the nomination at the party convention – and he did.
Rabbi Genack went on to be a regular guest at White House prayer meetings and briefings for Jewish leaders. Each time, he would present the president with a short piece of Torah.
In President Clinton’s second term, the pace picked up; Rabbi Genack began sending the White House a d’var Torah roughly every other week. He wrote most of them, but he asked friends and colleagues – including such modern Orthodox notables as former Yeshiva University Chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm and former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – to write some as well.
Now, around a hundred of them have been collected in a new book, “Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons on Faith and Leadership.”
“They were things I thought would be helpful for him,” Rabbi Genack said.
Some tied into the week’s Torah portion or an upcoming Jewish holiday; the themes of others were dictated by the events in the presidents political or personal life – or both, as they became uncomfortably intertwined.
“If you read President Clinton’s memoir, he speaks about what gave him strength during his impeachment: He would go back and read the Bible for many hours a day, and what he called these ‘mini-sermons,'” Rabbi Genack said.
“That the president of the United States should be so engaged by this and so intrigued speaks about President Clinton’s openness and curiosity.”
The president responded to some of the rabbi’s letters, and those responses are included in the book, which was published by OU Press and Sterling Publishing. (Rabbi Genack heads the Orthodox Union’s kosher division.)
Rabbi Genack noted the former president’s “real love of Israel, his concern for Israel, and very special relationship with Yitzhak Rabin.”
President Clinton clearly was no Orthodox Jew. But as a Southern Baptist, he knows his Bible. One time, Rabbi Genack mistyped a citation and referred to Genesis 28; President Clinton noted that it was chapter 38.
Rabbi Genack wasn’t the only preacher to be out-Bibled by President Clinton. In the book, Rabbi Genack tells of a meeting in the White House with Christian religious leaders. One said he was praying for the president and quoted a verse from Chronicle 1. “I believe that is in Second Chronicles,” corrected the President, correctly.
Similarly, when speechwriters were rushing to compose the eulogy for a cabinet member who had died in a plane crash, they paraphrased a verse of Isaiah from memory; President Clinton was able to cite chapter and verse and quote the King James translation from memory.
Unlike most Jewish books citing Biblical wisdom, the letters here are arranged thematically rather than according to the weekly Torah portion. (An index, however, makes it possible to use it to find a sermonette for the weekly parashah, as can be seen on page 46 of this week’s paper.) Topics include leadership, sin and repentance, creation, community, faith, dreams and vision, and finally holidays.
The final piece is about Rabbi Akiva and the holiday of Lag b’Omer.
“It was motivated by it being Lag b’Omer; I wrote it because it was relevant to him during a very difficult period,” Rabbi Genack said. “The idea was that the greatness of Rabbi Akiva was his resilience and faith in the deepest circumstances.”
President Clinton responded to this one, confessing his prior ignorance of the story of Rabbi Akiva, and his gratitude for “a story both inspiring and instructive” that came “on a day when I was in need of both.”
Rabbi Genack recalled that once, when he hadn’t sent a letter in two months, he received a call from the White House official who had been passing them on to the president. “What’s happening?” she asked.
The selection of letters for this volume did not close the story. Rabbi Genack continues to write to the former president.
“I sent him one recently about the importance of compromise, something which is very deficient in Washing today,” he said. “That was relevant to what I thought was happening.”